Jon Groom

© Jon Groom 2017  |   Imprint

Jon Groom - The Transmission of Color

Beate Reifenscheid

For Jon Groom, there is nothing more important in his art than the ongoing tussle with color and, bound up therewith, the experience of color as a phenomenon. For Groom, color is not a static thing but a living body that is subject to constant permutations - or, more accurately, provokes them of its own accord. Color is seen as a cosmos of its own that viewers can immerse themselves in like a deep sea of visual sensations and spiritual vibrations. Groom's understanding of art is to a very great extent both phenomenological in a scientific sense and sensually emotional.

Fully aware that numerous artists before him have already exploited and explored the realm of color field painting, his style takes this circumstance as a direct constant from which he deliberately deviates with great consistency. In this context, it may seem seductive or even downright obvious to make comparisons with Josef Albers, whose small-format pictures of "squares" carefully determine first and foremost what color enters into what dialogue with a second or third color and how far this dialogue is steered by sensations of depth, three-dimensionality, and mutual acceptance. The procedure of color field exploration - basically a simple matter in this structural system - Albers aptly described as the "interaction of color," which he formulated in theory as well. His extensive manual under that name contains his research into color and was to a considerable extent based on the insights of Bauhaus Meister Johannes Itten and Wassily Kandinsky. Basically, Albers distinguished between fact and illusion. The fact was that monochrome squares of different colors were superimposed on each other on a pre-set grid. The illusion was that the interaction of the colors created the impression that the color within a square changed as the eye moved from center to margin, and if the picture was imagined as three-dimensional, individual squares would appear to be staggered behind each other at varying distances. Albers referred to this contradictory form of color existence as "factual fact" and "actual fact." In this distinction he was getting at the conditional nature of our perception, i.e. the physiological and psychological effect of the colors.

In this, our eye is not infrequently taken in by a deceptive maneuver, because the interaction of the colors in quality and quantity changes their effect - compared with how they would look by themselves.

Jon Groom calls one of his pictures Who's Afraid of Joseph Albers?, noting with a suspicion of a grin that it is a provocative picture. Why provocative? After all, at first glance it looks perhaps like a mutation of an Albers in vertical elongation. But once you try to describe the picture, difficulties crop up that follow from the actual reality and factual reality of the picture. It starts with the ocher ground, which, depending on the incident light turns more gold or reacts more strongly to the red placed on the ocher ground as a dominant square. Narrow margins at the sides and broad equal strips above and below lend the intense, very bright red solidity and permanence, even though the red square seems in our minds to float. The center axis cutting the picture symmetrically in half abuts another square, whose dark, dull reddish-brown color leads our eye into the depth like a large window, without generating an echo. As with Albers, the colors here move forward or recede, creating an effect of depth and spatial density that sets the viewer's eye in permanent motion and at the same time disturbs. But the gold ocher by itself achieves greater things in the color experience than any color constellation of Albers could do. This fluctuating light and dull gold coloration evoked by a million-fold refraction of ultra-fine light particles on the surface, gen-erates a phenomenological reality in the picture that cannot be deductively or rationally explained or clarified, and can for its part only be experienced if the phenomenological and empirically tangible also unlocks the emotional and the irrational.

In fact, Jon Groom uses "classic" color field painting only peripherally, and does not go on to conjugate the whole Albers experience. Indeed, why should he? Basically, that would be too dry and not sensory enough for him. Essentially, the painting of Josef Albers is a deeply empirically minded affair, like a field research model with only a handful of variables - a modular system that has nonetheless a certain rigidity and dry objectivity to it. For Groom, painting is something quite different, containing a huge cosmos of possibilities. "Painting is a journey to simplify the complexity of existence," he once said. Painting itself thus ventures abroad, committing itself to the adventure of a constant challenge. It might fail, or it might start over. In essence, Groom's paintings are on the constant lookout for frontiers to cross, by means of which every sensory perception ends in an act of spiritual absorption and a spiritualized reflection about color, whose materiality he basically strives to utterly abolish so as to bring out its purism and thereby in turn the infinity of possibilities. This involves forgoing neither allusions to landscape elements nor rejecting the example of his great predecessors who influenced and stimulated him considerably during a long spell in Umbria - the Italian paintings of the International Gothic and the early Renaissance. It is the clarity of color, the lighting of the space in which the events take place that distinguishes the jewel-like art of Duccio, Perugino, and Fra Angelico, among others. Disregarding the iconographical implications of the scenes of mostly Christian import, which do not interest Groom very much, it is above all the rigor of composition and the plain and yet delicate nuancing of color that captivate viewers of these pictures over and over again. The very fact that for centuries gold was used as a background - sometimes flat, sometimes in relief - is fascinating. The spiritual notion of heaven, the world beyond, and the divine acquired thereby a quite unique dimension of preciousness and rapture beyond all earthly things. Gold is at the same time the color against which all other pictorial participants stand out as firmly ensconced in their earthly existences. In medieval painting the color gold represents the presence and mystery of God and also heavenly light.

That is why gold represents the background for painted Biblical scenes in medieval pictures. The presence of God in the overall narration of the scene is thereby flagged symbolically. Gold is the symbol for the "wholly other," the element that may not and cannot be shown in the picture. It is only later that the sky became blue, and the color of transcendence changed from gold to blue. Color in medieval pictures was thus a matter of symbolism. It represented neither reality nor the illusion or reality, but was charged exclusively with notions of tran-scendence, the celestial, and salvation. Three-dimensionality and corporeality were not yet factors of design. What mattered was the picture field and, analogously, color as a symbolic vehicle of expression. Gold had the highest status, as an expression of God's omnipotence in a celestial glow. That explains why the colors were used anti-naturalistically and thereby gained transcendental character.

When Groom introduces gold into his paintings and body-related three-dimensional works, he does this not in terms of a homogeneous field revealing itself in an auratic field of gold but only includes it as an auxiliary element, a minimum particle. Gold dust is mixed with one or more other color(s), on which it then bestows a gleam and a brilliance, if only mutedly. It is almost invisible to the naked eye, but has immense potential in terms of refraction and the phenomenological quality of the pictorial object. The works acquire sometimes a more metallic basic tone, sometimes a touch of warmth that removes all heaviness and rootedness in the earth from their visual power.

Groom's works are "phainómena." They are artifacts of an essentially non-factual dimension - of what is possible beyond any phenomenological reality. The concept, which carries spiritual connotations, is related to the term "phainómenon" ("the apparent") as used in Greek philosophy. Originally it only related to what was visible, but was then extended to embrace anything that could be perceived through the senses so as to describe what we could subjectively take in while looking at something. Even here, there is a distinction to be made between sensory perceptions as such and any "real," "true," or "objective" world behind them. The distinction was first made much of by Plato, who sets sensory phenomena clearly apart from "ideas." Plato's view of each is quite clear: "phenomena" are secondary (and inferior) to the "ideas." In his philosophy of ideas, Plato distinguishes between the worlds of the ideas and appearances (phenomena), closely related to which is the concept of "being the cause." Being the cause means, for example, that the idea of beauty (justice, sameness) is itself the cause of individual things that are beautiful (just, equal, etc.) being exactly that. So in his view, a rose is beautiful because it shares in the idea of beauty. Groom's paintings are capable of realizing this to an unusual degree, in the double sense Plato describes: as a "phainómenon" and as "being the cause." The former relates to the almost unreal character of his works, which, viewed in and for themselves, all seem to float. The very proportions of their color fields and the individual dimensions of the colors convey this impression. The colors can rarely be described as "earthed" in their material form. They also elude all easy pinning down and unambiguous categorization by the viewer. In Groom's work, color always formulates "˜unreality'. The spirituality of his works is largely based on this reciprocal effect of the color phenomenon, which oscillates between advancing and receding. His color worlds breathe, form space, and open whole galaxies of color sensations, but these are not available to the casual passing glance. It requires a slow, almost meditative process of studying the picture, which is tantamount to making the picture. The pictures repay constant revisiting.

They open up and unfold their secrets over time, like a light, murmuring whisper comparable to confidences between lovers. But the pictures forfeit nothing of their truth content in the process. They are not fragile on that account but full of power, and devoid of any tentativeness. Their strength is expressed through their placement in space and time, their unquestionably secure balance of fields and colors that become bodies, and even their sensitivity betrays their emotionality and at the same time their visionary force, their here and now.

For Groom, wrestling with color, its symbolic value and its power - both real and spiritual - means reflecting on nature. There are countless allusions to landscape in Groom's works, even if the formal idiom is initially always an (apparently) rational color field approach related to two or at most three color values. The formal characteristics seem to be not so remote from the Albers definition of the "homage to the square," and yet Groom's works manifest quite direct poetic correspondences with the natural world. The very titles of the works (Morning - Evening, Becoming, First Light) often pick up this aspect, though it is striking that it is the situational, the transcending of one state into another that attracts interest. The present exhibition title "Between the Light" also relates to this intermediate stage within the perception of nature. Bound to the magic of light, which can be experienced and understood equally in the everyday experience of nature and yet comprehended quite differently in its subjective feeling, it also means at the same time the otherworldliness of a quite different light - one that leads from a transitory light phenomenon to a spiritual light source surrendered to eternity.

This is, for example, particularly true of the five-part series of paintings called Five Days from 2005, which appears like the narrative of sunrise via the rising sun to the setting sun in the course of a single day. A real, even if completely abstract narrative spans the scene, which betrays its narrative association only against the background of subjective experience. Otherwise the factual structure of quadratic images predominates. By applying paint with a spatula, Groom strays from his otherwise largely cool, rational narrative form. Here there is a marked restlessness in the coloration. The works seem deliberately emotionalized and completely subject to the artist's rhythm. They reflect both the mood contents of nature that Jon Groom absorbed when he lived beside a lake and was exposed to nature, and the echo-like harmony with the emotional rhythm of the artist himself. The relatedness to nature is surprisingly great in this series. The gestural surface suggests a higher degree of emotionality, as it no longer looks so flat and untouched. The interplay of color between gray-blue and dull green picks up the light reflections within nature and gives off a picture of a nature experience, when the refractions of light are stored and intensified by the reflecting surface of the water. It is at the same time an allegory of nature, a higher, sublimated experiencing, feeling, and reflecting upon nature that carries within it the breadth of Creation.

It should also be mentioned in this context that Jon Groom has regularly traveled to India in recent years in order to absorb the colors, the spiritual customs, the wealth of olfactory sensations, and the fascinating strangeness of its music. That could not fail to enrich both his emotionality and rationalism, as well as steering him towards colors which undoubtedly derive their sensitive mood from this alien color splendor. However, Groom imposes a restrained, radical form on the emotionality by imposing the strong "chains" of rationalism on the emotionality of color and the spatula traces that evokes it. According to Groom, geometrical form is an effective way of not letting oneself get carried away and superimposing reason.

"I impose limits, i.e. the geometry, in order to have the colour transcend it. In all spiritual texts, ultimate freedom comes from discipline. If one is to truly realise the self and attain liberation, one has to work on oneself," is how he put it in an interview with Elisabeth Claus.

The result is a weave of "disciplined" form based on rational dimensions and a coloration that, despite the deliberate renunciation of an obvious painterly "handwriting," contains great potential for sensualistic events and filtered, "purified" emotions. The pictures in his head become reflections upon nature and the experience of the landscape, and acquire shape in the three-dimensional, quasi-corporeal pictorial object. For Groom, the depth of the paintings where the canvas is pulled over the stretcher are uncommonly important for the visual statement. They are also continued in the color of the front, assembling here, in a narrow way - in the same color - an intensified, clustered, condensed coloration that in turn reinforces the shadow of the corpus of the painting. In Groom's own words, "the edge - to overcome the edge with the painting while the corpus of the painting defines the borders." The edges and the limits of the pictorial surface once again define the spatial volume of the picture, which is constantly created anew. The perception of the corpus of the painting is affected differently every time depending on the spatial situation, the incidence of light and the subjectivity of the viewing.

Jon Groom's works bear evidence of this constant confrontation with painting, nature, and reflections on existence and beauty. They allow participation in the purifications that the artist himself undergoes, in the firm resolve to perfect himself and not to be content with a - possibly false - truth, but to confer validity on thoughts and views beyond his own subjectivity. His paintings bear witness to the artist, who nonetheless can step well back behind the objective wholeness and auratic radiance of his works - with total composure in view of the magic aura of his pictures.

This touches them with something that Agnes Martin, once noted, something that also surely applies to Jon Groom: "Everlasting life is perfect, and it is that perfection, a transcendental perfection, that I want in my painting "¦ a hint of perfection "¦ enough to make a painting alive."